The American Mind

Fundamental Transformation

Senior Fellow and Director, Center for American Common Culture

In a recent essay on National Review Online, center-right professors Paul Carrese and James Stoner criticized conservatives—including Stanley Kurtz, Mark Bauerlein, Scott Yenor, Joy Pullmann, and me—who wrote in opposition to the Educating for American Democracy (EAD) project.

The EAD initiative, which includes Carrese and Stoner as participants, is, according to its website, “a call to action to invest in strengthening history and civic learning, and to ensure that civic learning opportunities are delivered equitably throughout the country.” Ostensibly non-partisan, the EAD project is overwhelmingly dominated by the progressive left and seeks to “harmonize” a “national consensus” on civics education. The project includes perhaps 10 non-liberals out of 300 participants, and the executive committee is stacked eight to two in favor of the progressive left.

Having worked at AEI with Lynne Cheney, the former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, in the nineties in opposition to the National History Standards, I know how this tune goes. A “national consensus” dominated by progressive educators inevitably leads to a final product that advances the progressive agenda. And it does not include a civic education that ultimately seeks to improve, strengthen, and, yes, perpetuate the American polity and our way of life.

Today, the goal of progressive educators is “fundamental transformation” of the United States. The EAD is a revolutionary assault on what most Americans understand as civics, for it demands that anyone living in the United States, citizen or non-citizen, legal or illegal, should be a “civic participant” engaged in politics, policy, and decision-making. This degrades and repudiates the significance of American citizenship and the inspiring Oath of Allegiance and Renunciation that naturalized citizens take to our Constitution.

The EAD document laments that “students can make it into their teens without knowing, for instance, that George Washington was not only a foundational leader but also enslaved people.” George Washington was a slave holder, who made provisions for freeing his slaves in his will, but he was certainly not an “enslaver” who, by definition, seized free people and placed them in bondage.

Labeling Washington and other Founders as “enslavers” is the latest attempt by progressive educators to de-legitimize the American Founding by denigrating the Founders themselves. Why Stoner and Carrese would agree to sign a document that makes this ludicrous claim is a matter for them to explain.

One of the seven key themes of the EAD roadmap covers international relations and foreign policy. This theme is decidedly tilted in a transnational progressive or global governance direction. The single most important issue for conservatives in world affairs—the paramount significance of American sovereignty and what this means for our democratic self-government—is never mentioned. Instead, EAD presents a series of questions that privilege the ideology of global governance.

Loaded EAD questions such as “How do we balance American ideals of justice with our national interests?” imply that our national interests are somehow inferior or in opposition to ill-defined concepts of “ideals of justice.” All of this depends, of course, on what we mean by “American ideals of justice”: the ideals of equality as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the civil rights era, or the contemporary ideals of “equity” that require unequal treatment depending upon whether one belongs to a “marginalized” or “dominant” racial, ethnic, or gender group.

This entire section presupposes that global governance is both inevitable and superior to democratic national sovereignty, and that rule by transnational experts is superior to republican self-government. But the EAD elides the significant global debate over who decides the critical questions of political life under global governance: democratic nation-states or non-elected institutions such as the World Health Organization, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and the United Nations. Should ultimate authority reside in the U.S. Constitution, or in continually evolving international law?

On matters of comity, Stoner and Carrese suggest we should not “begin by alienating our fair-minded civic friends on the left.” They continue, “we’ll interpret the Constitution we share a bit differently and have slightly different views of what’s worth honoring and what should be abandoned in our history. But even so…if we listen to each other—and, yes, compromise—we can, in fact, find constructive agreement.”

In contrast, other members of the EAD executive committee actively promote factional revolution in civic education. For example, Louise Dube, executive director of iCivics (and EAD executive committee member) argues, “we have been teaching civics primarily from one perspective, that of the white male.” Dube stresses her commitment “to pointing out institutional systemic racism in teaching about our institutions. This will alienate some, but it is the moral imperative of today.”

In defense of EAD and an attempt to demonstrate its even-handedness, Carrese and Stoner note that the executive committee objected to the Biden administration’s rules emphasizing “equity” as a priority in deciding federal grant money for history and civics. They neglect to note, however, that the EAD did not object to the administration’s promotion of the flawed “1619 Project,” the tendentious work of Ibram X. Kendi, or Critical Race Theory and its radical, racist implications.

EAD investigators, including Carrese, commented, “While documenting and learning from entrenched patterns of marginalization, enduring biases, inequities, and discriminatory policy and practice in American history is indeed an appropriate part of civic learning,” it is “incomplete.” The EAD public comment continues that “we are fortunate to live in a time” when “narratives can emphasize agency even of those who experienced oppression and domination.” This “requires” educators to not only “bring the wrongs to the surface” but also “bringing forward the positive vision of democratic possibility.”

For EAD this “democratic possibility” means “the possibility that a ‘new birth of freedom’ corrects and completes the promise of America’s founding ideals.” The authors maintain that the focus on “democratic possibility,” should be “as central…as the excavation of the failings of our constitutional democracy.”

EAD believes that America is best understood within an ideological agenda that employs concepts such as marginalization, domination, and oppression as central to American history and civic education. It also tells us that “we are fortunate to be living at a time” when this overwhelmingly negative portrait of the American way of life is pervasive in elite educational circles. We need a new regime (called a “re-founding” in the Roadmap) that not simply “completes” or fulfills, but also “corrects,” America’s founding ideals.

We learn from the EAD comment that, though “patterns of domination persist in the present,” there is a “democratic possibility” to overcome these inequities sometime in the future. This means that Americans today did not grow up in a constitutional republic but in an “oppressive” regime in which “patterns of domination” prevailed.

The EAD vision of civic education does not represent the heritage of American liberalism in the traditional sense represented by Walter Mondale or Mario Cuomo. Instead, it represents Jacobinism. The “democratic possibility” when true “equity” is achieved is a radical utopian vision which will never be reached in the same way that the Marxist cadres under Soviet domination never reached “true socialism.” “Democratic possibility” will always be in the future and outside of our reach. The Left will always find “oppressive” and “dominant” systems of “marginalization” to decry.

The language of the EAD public comment is marinated in the shibboleths of identity politics. We are told about “civic agents” rather than citizens. We are told about the “peoples of this country,” as if we are a collection of separate “peoples” like the Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman Empire. We are told that we must educate all students in the history of “enslavement” in America rather than in the history of slavery and emancipation. And, as noted, we are told about “democratic possibility” in the future rather than our existing constitutional democracy.

Conservatives who participate in forms of “Left-Right collaboration” in which the deck is stacked, in which the process is overwhelming dominated by the Left, are simply providing false “trans-partisan” cover for the advancement of the woke progressive educational agenda. This agenda, in turn, is a significant front in the Left’s war on the American way of life: our history, culture, mores, and people.

As Stanley Kurtz has noted, the solution for conservatives is not to participate in a “national consensus” where there is no real consensus. Instead, patriots of all parties should develop competing and alternative educational frameworks, guidelines, and curricula, for adoption by state and local school boards. The National Association of Scholars (NAS) is involved in developing solid material. American Achievement Testing (AAT) is challenging the monopoly of the APUSH (Advanced Placement in United States History exam), which is a product of the left-dominated College Board. Professor Wilfred McClay has written a powerful new textbook Land of Hope that AAT is using to create serious, realistic, and accurate history and civic curricula. Local control of education, not a phony “national consensus,” is the path forward.

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